This winter Jim Thome, the most popular Indian since Rocky Colavito, left Cleveland for the finer pastures of Philadelphia. Something sounds wrong with that statement, but it's true. The Indians, who enjoyed a significant resurgence during the 1990's, now find themselves hoping to be in Philadelphia's situation 3 or 4 years down the line. Fortunes can change quickly. Losing Thome was the final straw in the dismantling of a contender in Cleveland. He is the now the prize jewel of the Philadelphia team.
Thome left Cleveland because the Phillies gave him close to $30 million reasons why, so it wasn't exactly suprising when he accepted their offer. With the Indians in full rebuilding mode, Thome would have had to make like Mike Sweeney on the humble, and cut the home team an impressive discount to hang around. It behooved Thome to move on. But when Frank ¡®trader' Lane traded Rocky Colavito to the Detroit Tigers for Harvey Kuenn in the spring of 1960, it appeared like the beginning of the end. Kuenn was a good hitter, but you just don't trade Rocky Colavito when's he's 26 and he hits nothing but bombs for you.
The Rocky Colavito trade signaled the demise of an Indians team, which had enjoyed a period of great success; it also set forth a series of events that would cast the team into the baseball cellar for the better part of three decades.
That is the conceit of Terry Pluto's breezy, informal, and affectionate history of the Tribe, "The Curse of Rocky Colavito: A Loving Look at a 30-year slump"*. Like it's literary cousin, "The Curse of the Bambino" by Dan Shaugnessy, Pluto's book takes a symbolic moment---the trading of a beloved player, and uses it as the unwitting catalyst for the team's subsequent misfortunes.
The idea that one trade cursed a franchise may seem slippery, or contrived, but for the sake of an eye-catcher, it works just fine. Pluto's book is not an academic, or definitive history of the Indians, it is an impressionable, anecdotal narrative, which covers a lifetime worth of unstable ownership, lousy trades, bizarre luck, incorrigible head-cases, flops, blunders and of course, the unconditionally, loyal fans.
Pluto, a sports writer from Cleveland, was born in 1955. The Indians he grew up watching were one of the game's perennial losing propositions. It was the Indian team that was spiritually represented so tellingly in the movie "Major League": an unmitigated hodge-podge of bottom-feeders, and rejects. (That the movie itself was cheap, shoddy and yet somehow popular is fitting.)
The Indians played in the cavernous Indians stadium, which according to Pluto, "wasn't a ballpark, it was a mausoleum---too big, too damp, too old and too cold". The weather tore up the grass so badly that longtime Indians GM, Gabe Paul had it painted green.
"I never thought it was any good for baseball," said Gabe Paul. "It sits right on that damn Lake Erie, and the wind blows off there---it can chill you to the bone. A mile away, the weather wouldn't be nearly as bad. But on the lake, we had games called for fog, snow, you name it. Also, it's just too barny, too damn big. You can't convince people to buy tickets in advance because they know they can wait until the last minute and still get good seats."
That wasn't worst of Paul's problems. Keeping the Indians in Cleveland proved to be a full-time job in and of itself. "This much must be said for Paul: He busted his ass to keep the Tribe in Cleveland in the early 1960's. If it hadn't been for Paul, the Indians would have been some other city's heartache." Ultimately however, Paul's greatest talent seemed to be keeping his job, regardless who owned the team.
According to Pete Franklin, the Cleveland talk show great, "That was Gabe's true secret¡¦Gabe was a master at working the room, of getting to know everybody and knowing where all the bodies are. The thing about Gabe was that while he did work for an owner, he always found a way to get a piece of the team himself. Then it became damn near impossible to fire him because he was part-owner. Gabe's greatest gift was the ability to take care of Gabe."
True to form, Paul left Cleveland to run the Yankees for George Steinbrenner in 1973, after an attempt by Steinbrenner to purchase the Tribe fell through. With the resources at his command, Paul was the architect of the Yankees championship teams of the late 1970's. Curiously, Pluto neglects to mention how Paul plucked away Craig Nettles, Chris Chambliss and Dirt Tidrow from the Tribe and brought them to New York.
It could finally be said, "See what happens when you give Gabe Paul some money to work with?" But after five years with the Yankees, with two league championships and one World Series under his belt, Paul, exhausted from the hysteria of the Bronx Zoo, would return to the comfort of Cleveland.
"Since 1959 and the Colavito trade, September may as well have been erased from the Cleveland baseball calendar. August, too. This team was usually out of sight in the American League by the Fourth of July. Since 1959, Cleveland has had eighteen managers and twelve ownership groups, and nothing has changed but the faces. The whole organization seems stuck in the dufus syndrome."
Here are just some of the names who passed through the Cleveland organization over the years, on their way to bigger and better things elsewhere: Roger Maris, Norm Cash, Mudcat Grant, Gaylord Perry, Tommy Agee, Luis Tiant, Tommy John, Craig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, Dennis Eckersley, Buddy Bell, Bert Blyleven, and Rich Sutcliffe.
Some of these moves were due to poor management (Maris, Eckersley, Grant), others to chance (Agee and John who as youngsters were moved to bring Rocky Colavito back to the Tribe in 1965). If you were an Indians fan it ceased to matter. One way or another, the Indians were snake bit. Pluto covers each story with varying attentiveness, but he's generally even-handed, and fair. The Frank Robinson vs. Gaylord Perry section is especially good, and so is the Eckersley, Rick Manning soap opera. Mudcat Grant and Andre Thorton have particularly impressive profiles, and the Sudden Sam McDowell story is one of the Indians' most poignant and sorry.
Pluto's affectionate look at the motley cast of characters that passed through Cleveland over a 30-year span is light, engaging reading. There is a little bit of everything: phenoms like Herb Score, and Sudden Sam McDowell, Rick Manning, and Super Joe Charboneau, malcontents like Wayne Garland and Rico Carty, trailblazers like Frank Robinson---who became the first black manager in the major leagues for the Indians in 1975, and even stand-up guys like Andre Thorton and Mike Hargrove.
My favorite character of the bunch is Herb Score, a blazing pitching talent of the mid-50's, who along with Rocky Colavito was poised to keep the Indians powerhouse thriving. Colavito's story is a good one as well. An Italian kid from the Bronx that hit bombs? What's not to like? Gordon Cobbledick wrote in the Plain Dealer, "Many are aware of Rocky's limitations. They know he is an indifferent outfielder. They know he is a slow and uninspired base runner. They know he is capable of long spells when his bat is a feeble instrument. But the love him because he's Rocky Colavito¡¦No more than a half-dozen players in the history of Cleveland baseball have been accorded the hero worship he enjoys¡¦Rocky was our boy."
How could Frank Lane have traded Colavito? Mudcat Grant may have had the best response. "You want to know why Lane traded Rocky? That's easy. Lane was an idiot."
The most amusing bit about Rocky was how powerful his arm was. He actually pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings over his career, allowing only one hit. "As a pitcher, Rocky could have been a twenty-game winner,"[manager Joe] Gordon was quoted as saying several times.
"Rocky had the strongest arm of anyone in the Cleveland farm system, and that includes the pitchers," said Score. "In the minors, the players would make bets before the games. Then we'd make sure the manager was in the clubhouse so he couldn't watch. Rocky would stand at home plate and try to throw a ball over the center field wall on a fly. He could do it---four hundred feet. I saw if myself several times."
Score is most famous for being drilled in the face with a line drive off the bat of Yankee infielder Gil MacDougald. Before that incident, which occurred on May 7, 1957, Score, then 23-years old, had a lifetime record of 38-20 with a 2.63 ERA and 547 strikeouts in 512 innings. For the rest of Score's career, his record was 1-26 with a 4.48 ERA.
Score did manage to come back, but arm trouble derailed what looked like a promising career. Score's declined was blamed on the beaning, but Score shrugged it off. MacDouglad was equally as devastated by the beaning, if not more so. "I know it was an accident. It looked like the poor guy just couldn't get his glove up in time¡¦The nicest thing was that Herb's mother spent a long time on the phone with me. I'll never forget that. But I never felt the same about baseball after that."
Pluto continued, "[MacDougald] retired after the 1960 season at the age of thirty, even though there was plenty of life left in his career. He batted .289 in the seven years through 1957, and .253 in the final three seasons after Score's injury."
Score, a modest an unsentimental man, later became a television and then the radio broadcaster for the Tribe. His relaxed demeanor and dry sense of humor perfectly suited the sad sack team. Failure wasn't the end of the world for Score, just another thing to deal with and move past.
"On the air, Score has an engaging, easygoing personality. He talks to you, not at you or down to you. He comes across as a man who would make friends quickly, a master of mall talk about such things as the weather---and the weather is one of Score's favorite subjects¡¦Even when the Indians play in a dome. Score will tell you the temperature inside, then describe the weather outside the dome when he got off the team bus. This much is very true of Herb Score: He can talk for a long time about nothing much and do it in detail."
A true baseball gift if there ever was one.
His partner in the booth for many years, Nev Chandler said, "Herb never talked much about his career. He did like to talk about Ted Williams, how great Williams was and how he could never get Williams out. The only time that Herb's feelings about pitching came through strongly was a day I said on the air that this pitcher had a ¡®respectable 3.55 ERA.' During the commercial break, Herb turned to me and said, ¡®Let me tell you something. Any pitcher with an ERA over 3.00 is not doing his job.'
"I said, ¡®Herb, that's a pretty harsh analysis.'
"He said, ¡®It's true. If they get more than three runs off you, you are not doing your job.'
"That's because not many people got three runs off Herb Score when he was healthy. But Herb would never say anything like that on the air."
What I appreciate most about Score is his unpretentious approach to baseball and broadcasting.
"The thing I believe in is that the players are the stars, not the broadcasters," said Score. "I don't try to be an expert on every play. I like to think that some guy is in the car with his son, and they are listening to the game. The guy will say, ¡®This is a good time to bunt.' Then the player bunts. In my head I know it's a good time to bunt, but I don't have to say it all the time. Why take that away from the father?"
Such sensitivity is rare in a medium where announcers act as if they get paid by the mouth full. Or by the opinion. Score's hands off sensibility is not a modern one, but it is an admirable one because it takes the audience into such high consideration. It's not In-Your-Face, but informative, and measured.
"I want to be objective as I can," Score continued. "I hope you can't tell who is winning the game by the tone of my voice. If the game is exciting, I'll show it. If the other team makes a good play, that excites me, too. People tell me, ¡®You're not critical enough when a guy makes an error.' Wait a minute. If a guy boots one, that's obvious. I see the play. I mark down the error on my scorecard, and then I tell people it was an error. No one feels worse than the guy who dropped the ball or struck out with the bases loaded. He messed up and everyone knows it, including the fans. So why dwell on it? I want the broadcast to be even-handed and to sound like a couple of relaxed guys talking baseball. It's not the opera or the White House."
Rocky Colavito may have been the heart of Cleveland, but Score has been its soul. But you can't say the "Curse of Herb Score" cause Score turned out to be such a blessing. Besides Herb Score isn't as cool sounding for a curse as Rocky Colavito anyhow.
* I have the second edition of this book, which was published in 1995. It's safe to say that Pluto's conception of the Indians as the lowest of the losers is now outdated after Albert Belle, Manny, Omar and co., no matter how stripped down they've become in the past year and a half. I'm curious if he'll do a significant re-working of his theory in his next edition of the book. The following will no longer apply to the Indians:
"Boston Red Sox fans whine about the curse of the Bambino, about losing in the World Series. Losing in the World Series? You call that suffering? What Indians fans would give for a repeat of 1954---the Indians last World Series---when they were swept in four games!"
Chicago Cubs fans gnash their teeth, go to the wailing wall, and compare themselves to Job because their team has not been to the World Series since 1945, But the Cubs almost got their a few times¡¦They're often in first place until the heat of August.
Cubs fans at least have some almosts and September Swoons."
And so forth. Since Pluto's book was last printed, the Indians have been to two World Series and they've lost them both. Can you say Game 7? They've been the most impressive team the league has seen out of Cleveland since the late 40's and 1950's. So now the Indians have joined the ranks of Red Sox and Cubby "Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda, Almosts". And now of course, as if punished for their brief run of success, Cleveland fans are back in the familiar position of having to root for a loser again. Lovable as they may be. At least they've still got Omar Vizquel.